Thursday, April 29, 2010

Sergio in Hollywood Peek-A-Boo Shocker!

The only way this stops is when UEFA grow a pair and declare that a player deemed to have simulated an offense to get a player punished will serve the suspension instead. As we’ve seen, referees get things wrong over and over again – the authorities must acknowledge this and take action. Is there any doubt that Motta should be able to play in the final though he’ll probably get a 3 match ban while Busquets gets away with cheating.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

That's Not A Real #9, It's A False One

Jonathan Wilson is at it again over at the Guardian Sport Blog. This time he addresses the question of the center-forward who drops deep into midfield or wide. Despite success, the teams who've experimented with the system have mostly returned to more traditional ways of playing.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Inexplicable Miss

Quick on the heals of Bobby Zamora's miss for the record books, The Spoiler has uncovered this gem:

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Dempsey, Redeemed, Recycled

(This post is recycled from my comments in response to a post at The Shin Guardian.)

The Clint Dempsey saga continues. Did you happen to see big Clint running like mad and defending for Fulham this week-end? I wonder what changes when he suits up for the US. Maybe a manager that has the respect of the players and actually gives them clear tactical instructions? Or is it that the other Fulham players movement off the ball is that much better? We saw some more profligate finishing but he was definitely one of the best players on the pitch for the full 90 minutes.

The asymmetric system Fulham played against Everton was interesting. Duff switched to the right wing to try and exploit space left from Baines’ runs forward and make him defend on his weaker side when he cut inside (Baines is similarly one-sided). Pantsil stayed at home a little more than he often does. Dempsey played deeper and came inside from the left and tried to get into the far post to try to get on crosses with Konchesky on the overlap for width. Those are effective tactics from Hodgson that used his players strengths to exploit his opponents weaknesses. Looks to me like Dempsey can be very effective playing deeper in midfield and tracks back very effectively if when asked by his manager.

Fulham’s tactics were much more clearly articulated than the USMNT where its often hard to say what they were after any given match. I think Dempsey’s actually a bit more dangerous in the spot he played on the left given when he can cut inside to find a runner in the channel, shoot from distance or arrive late at the far post – he never gets up the wing to cross the ball anyway. On that performance, is there any doubt that Dempsey can play at a high level more centrally in midfield either?

When stationed out on the left Donovan also has the sort of reverse ball that Frank Lampard played for Drogba’s goal this week-end (unfortunately it isn't available on youtube due to copyright claims). So Donovan and Dempsey are both more dangerous on the left. Sometimes I’d like to see Donovan try to get around the fullback but he usually stops around the 18 and starts playing quarterback instead. I guess that’s just not his game. I feel Dempsey's poor performances for the USMNT are partly because he needs more similarly skilled players around him in support. So how to we transform USMNT Dempsey into Fulham Dempsey?

Given that they’re both better on the left, it would be interesting to sacrifice one of Davies or Altidore for Holden as a pure winger on the right, giving Dempsey and Donovan freedom to interchange between left midfield and a deeper attacking behind the lone striker. Holden would be asked to track back to help Spector while Donovan and Dempsey could share defensive responsibility with whoever was in better position to track back when the ball was lost. With a wing-back like Castillo now in the mix, he could overlap on the left, making for a 4-5-1 (4-2-3-1) that quickly becomes a very attacking 3-4-3 (3-2-2-3) in attack which is still better able to defend once possession is lost.

This allows our two most gifted players to play off one another instead of being stationed on opposite sides of the pitch. This should mean we’re more coherent in possession despite playing with two destroyers in central midfield. Clark and Bradley (or Edu but it seems like J.Jones is getting more doubtful by the day) must play as conservative holding players with one ready to cover the fullback’s space on the left when Castillo advances and the other protecting in front of the back four when possession is lost. In possession they should provide the easy option in support of Donovan or Dempsey to switch the ball quickly to the right for Holden to get beyond the fullback and put in crosses.

Attacking with 5 players is plenty given that attacking with 6 creates the defensive problems we have when possession is lost, when we often leave the back four completely exposed. It’s much easier to defend against the counterattack with 3 defenders and 2 midfielders rather than just a single defensive line that our central midfielders leave unprotected. That’s why almost everyone gives the fullbacks license to attack while the defensive midfielders stay in position to be able to defend in the center when the ball is lost. That’s why it doesn’t matter so much how well Castillo can defend, as whether Bradley figures out that his central midfielders need to be on a shorter leash. The attack lacks midfield support, not numbers.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

One, Oh and Away!

It wasn't pretty but the US went down to T&T and grabbed three points on a Ricardo Clark strike from 20 yards. Bob Bradley dressed for the occasion, the atmosphere was electrocuted, Bornstein started, our defending was atrocious, Onyewu looked rusty, play through midfield nonexistent, Jr had a stinker, Davies had worn himself out perfecting his stanky leg, Donovan was stuck on "counterattack" and Dempsey was indifferent. However, none of that matters because, with two games left in the hexagonal, we're a home draw away from the World Cup. In that spirit, I'm only going to write about positive things from last night:
  1. Points. Three of them. It's entirely in our hands. An away win at Honduras or a draw with Costa Rica and we're in.
  2. Dressed for success, Bob Bradley used his substitutions well. Even Ching. And they all positively effected the game.
  3. We're set up to compete with the big boys, not to dominate mediocrity. I think we've learned some lessons this summer and Bob Bradley may be football's answer to Forest Gump.
  4. Plucky little El Salvador. Their 1-0 win over Costa Rica means they drop as much as a point and we're in.
  5. Just watching Wilson Palacios. What a beast - he's what you'd get if NFL inside linebackers played soccer. Was great watching him organize the midfield so effectively. Honduras put on a team defending clinic for about 75 minutes at Azteca and were the victim of a softish penalty call. I wish we had that kind of player in our central midfield - we'd shut up shop. Honduras away should be a tough nut to crack but they'll have to come out of the shell more at home needing 3 points and expose the spaces that opened against Mexico as they searched for a late equalizer.
  6. Bornstein was our best player in the first half. That's really not saying much, i know, but this game was played at his level. Maybe I'm grading on a curve? Jozy had a couple of bright moments including his shot from distance and the two-man game with Davies but Bornstein made a couple important headers at the back post to keep things level and generally did an acceptable job, even covering up for his centrebacks who looked pretty suspect in the first half. Don't get me wrong, I don't think Bornstein is actually any good. If we had any talent at that position he wouldn't be in the program. I'd like to see Castillo given a shot to push him out of the mix.
  7. I thought Clark had a good game. He gives us what Bradley Sr. needs from Bradley Jr. when he's paired with Feilhaber - a more conservative defensive midfield player to cover in front of the back four. If you don't have Wilson Palacios, you want a quietly effective game from your defensive midfield player which was what he delivered last night, capped off with the winning goal. Was less panicked in possession last night - hopefully someone in Italy will teach him how to set the tempo by playing short and simple.
  8. We were so much better once Feilhaber came on. I would like to see a Clark/Feilhaber midfield but we all know why that will never happen.
  9. On the right, I thought Spector had a really solid game and now owns that spot.
  10. For once, last night, Harkes was right. I've been defending Dempsey a lot lately and I thought he was quite good against El Salvador. It drives me nuts when Harkes harps on his every mistake before excusing Donovan's every bad touch and poor decision. In fact, I've turned it into i like tuesday's official USMNT drinking game. However, Harkes was right. Dempsey had a really poor game.
Positive enough? Good. Now it's time for today's entirely positive armchair tactical critique in which I offer some constructive suggestions for tightening up that troublesome flabby backside:

I think the problem with our team defending is actually deceptively simple. Our back 4 just need to play a bit narrower. Against Spain we held a narrower shape to good effect simply because they tend to play through the middle. Brazil under Dunga have a more expansive style with overlapping wing play spreading our defense and opening space to exploit. Both Mexico goals at Azteca came when we overcommitted to wing instead of worrying about the dangerous areas in and at the top of the box.

The solution is that the opposite side fullback should be tucked in much closer to the central defenders so it's 1 fullback on the wing and 3 in the middle. Think of two chains which run across the back four - one connects the two fullbacks but slides through the line of the central defenders, while the second connects the two central defenders. The fullbacks move together - if the left back is out on the wing, that should pull the right back into towards the back post and vice versa. The central defenders also move together but indepedently of the fullbacks, shading towards the wing with possession within roughly the width of the 6 yard box plus a yard or two. In the last two games our centre-backs have been getting pulled further out towards the wing to try to help the fullbacks do their job out there.

The chain between our fullbacks tends to run the roughly the width of the box (44 yards), a spacing of roughly 10 yards between our 4 defenders. However since the two central defenders, tend to play closer together than 10 yards, this leaves more space between the fullback and central defender. This channel is the most dangerous area on the pitch. We're leaving far too much space in this area when the ball is central.

Instead, both fullbacks should be tucked in more to shut down these inside channels. Our chain should be 10-15 yards shorter, with a spacing of 7 or 8 yards. We'll concede more space and possession on the wing where the defensive philosophy will be not get beat on the dribble and try to block the cross. If a cross does get through, there aren't too many strikers in international football that will trouble our central defenders in the air. The space left on the opposite wing makes a switch with one-pass tempting but that requires a risky 50-60 yard ball - conceding that ball can often win back possession with an unforced error. Both Bornstein and Spector are plenty quick enough to get out to the wing on a switch, but Boca might need help from a midfielder. With a shorter chain, many of the goals we've conceded could have been prevented, including both goals at Azteca.

I really think we need a third player in central midfield - our current system verges on the 4-2-4 of the 1958 Brazilians, without the unparalleled Pelé to pile in the goals. Instead of overlapping fullbacks, our suicidal central midfielders get very high up the pitch. That means when we lose possession we're vulnerable to the counterattack and our midfield is constantly over-run when they do get back. When we win possession it's like the 100m dash - no one ever shows to the ball. Where are Clark and Bradley going?

It would be nice to see Donovan actually show short more like he did a couple times in the second half and boss the game by setting the tempo in possession but it's like he's permanently stuck on "counterattack" setting. How many times were one of our back 4 left with plenty of time on the ball trying to find someone to play it to before deciding to hoof it long? That is the fault of our midfielders, not distribution out of the back. We have 2 up front with some quality in attack now but our midfielders are still playing like Ching is up there on his own.

I see the counterattacking merits of our 4-2-2-2, but I think that until our central midfielders mature we should really be a 4-3-3 (4-3-1-2 or 4-3-2-1) side with 3 of Davies, Altidore, Donovan & Dempsey up top and one more body in central midfield. In last night's second half, Clark, Bradley, Feilhaber did far more to control the tempo of the game and stop T&T's attacks looking quite so dangerous. Except for one moment of panic around 85 minutes, I felt a second goal was far more likely than an equalizer in the second half.

And ending on a final positive note, it seems that both Clark and Bradley have learned an important lesson in the Confederations Cup. Neither are going to ground to make hard, cardable tackles quite so easily these days, even with the generous CONCACAF referees around.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

El Salvadore Post

Been very busy lately, but here are my half-formed thoughts on the US vs. El Salvadore match.

  • With all deference to the McBride's years of yeoman's work, Charlie Davies is going to be our first true star striker. Scores goals, makes goals, speed, turn, vision, awareness, a poachers opportunistic streak and just enough selfishness. He's improved a lot even since the Confederations Cup, getting better with his back to goal, involving other players into play, and gaining the confidence to take players on and beat them with a change of speed. Can make a chance out of nothing. Davies will set a new record transfer for an American in the next season or two, mark my words.
  • Altidore. We shouldn't forget how young Jozy is. He has all the potential in the world but is very much the unfinished product but a couple seasons in England and could be right there with Davies. Needs to show the same work-ethic that his strike-partner clearly has.
  • Feilhaber didn't do anything obviously spectacular but was our only midfield player able to effectively set the tempo. His impact will not be fully appreciated. Though it wasn't likely to be any specific tactical instruction from Bradley, he ended up coming deep and playing in the type of deep-lying playmaker role that Ancelotti/Pirlo invented. He does small things to create space, relieve pressure and make other players better. If Donovan and Dempsey had solid matches, he deserves some of the credit. His skills are more subtle than Reyna's were but a good run in the side could yield just as substantial an impact. Things fell apart with his substitution.
  • Dempsey. It is easy to get frustrated with him at times, but he's still one of our best players with a scoring record that speaks for itself. He drifted inside frequently to find the game and had a larger overall impact than in recent matches. His first two chances were tougher than they looked with his shot off Davies cutback under good defensive pressure and his header over the bar took the slightest deflection off Bradley's head. Third time was the charm with a strong, decisive header into the corner. Should've done better 1 v 1 with the keeper to ice the game and should've added an assist on the goal inexplicably called back. Dempsey was recognized as one of the best players at his club which qualified for Europe last season - would his detractors show me another American player of that stature? For critics of his defending, Big Clint can track back more when asked. I assume Bradley has told him not to so he can get into the box with more frequency.
  • Donovan. I've been his most strident critic since he clearly has so much more to offer. Finally, he's starting to play up to his potential - tracking back to defend, running tirelessly, and putting in dangerous crosses. Still needs to make the opportunities he creates tell with more frequency. The Beckham experiment has been worth it if only for its effect on Donovan. I think it finally got his tail up - seems like he really wants to be top dog and is now willing to work for it - the old Landy-cakes would've floated those balls instead of driving them into the box. With his new found drive to succeed, he could be world class if he finds finally finds success on a badly-needed European move. France/Spain would be a perfect for him.
  • Bornstein was APPALLINGLY BAD. It honestly looked like we'd accidentally switched our left back for some age-group player from among the ball boys. His defensive awareness is virtually non-existent. He looked terrified every time he had the ball. If he had any ability on the ball whatsoever, his botched attempt at a blind clearance could have easily been a tap back to Boca for him to clear. Offers nothing going forward but nonetheless manages to get caught up-field frequently. Should go the way of Beasley after this performance.
  • Spector looked a bit out of sorts at right back. If Zola and Clark have the confidence to play him at left back while selling a couple defenders, that's a vote of confidence. It's no coincidence that Steve Clarke's departure coincided with Chelsea leaking goals - West Ham is going to keep it tight and Specs is going to be part of that. He should play where he's playing for his club: at left back. Could've done better on the goal when his mark got across him but...
  • Marshall was hopelessly adrift on the El Salvadore goal. Why are 3 of our back 4 within 5 yard of the ball out on the wing? It was pure comedy defending. Marshall is a decent tackler, passable in the air and has some confidence on the ball but clearly has acquired the MLS centre-back's tendency to over-commit to the ball. He's made this mistake repeatedly and in MLS it has repeatedly gone unpunished. When will we learn that keeping a clean-sheet comes from a team effort, not individual heroics?
  • It's an age-old yarn, Michael Bradley seems to be desperately misunderstood by his own father. Bradley Jr. is a shuttling midfielder of the "box-to-box destroyer" type. In these terms he's a good, solid player. The problem is Bob Bradley's system desperately needs him to be something he is not. He is not a holding player, he is not a creator, he is not an organizer able to set tempo. He's just not disciplined enough to anchor a fulcrum midfield. We will always be fragile until we change our midfield personnel or our system.
Free Advice for Bob Bradley:
  • Wear a suit on the touchline. Look the part of an international manager and you might start doing a passable imitation of one.
  • Judging by your demeanor and the flatness we perpetually start every game, you must give the most underwhelming team talks ever. Enroll on a public speaking course. Also, get your head examined by a professional and your entire attitude adjusted.
  • When we're bossing a game and have the lead, there is nothing wrong with the obvious like-for-like subs instead of changing the shape.
  • Percentage possession is a crucial indicator to which you should pay far more attention. If you don't understand percentages, hire someone to multiply it by 90 minutes and think of it as "time spent defending".
  • Find a system to best use your players, rather than shoehorning them into something entirely unsuitable like some old cougar. Spend some time getting to know your own son. Worth noting, 4-6 is not a system, it's an unmitigated disaster.
  • You must learn that team defending is just as important as the qualities of individual players. Substituting a more defensive player for a more offensive one doesn't necessarily shore up the defense. This mistake has cost much more capable managers their job.
  • Your substitutions had a terrible effect on our shape and allowed El Salvadore to commit ever more players going forward instead of staying honest. Your first substitution, Holden for Davies, was forced by injury, but made perfect sense. After that it all went wrong.
  • How about Ching for Jozy? As much as I think Ching's ability to win balls and hold up play is vastly exagerrated, he has the strongest defensive qualities of our forwards. So, 60-70 minutes and a 1 goal lead is Ching time.
  • How about Torres for Feilhaber? Torres is vastly more deserving of a shot to play in his own position than Beckerman who undistinguished himself in the Mexico 5 - USA 0 Gold Cup Massacre of 2009. There better be a very good reason if any of those losers wear the jersey ever again.
  • Brazilian-born Feilhaber and German defector J. Jones might be able to function as the Spanish-style fulcrum midfield that seems to be the only system you understand. That pairing would have to come at the expense of your son. Also worth noting is that with a few exceptions, teams that use that system aren't renowned for being tight at the back.
  • A potential tactical masterstroke: midfield 3 of J.Jones (or Clark for now), Bradley, with Feilhaber playmaking from deep, supporting possession and defending positionally at which, judging from the number of interceptions he made, he's actually fairly good. One of Davies/Altidore/Donovan/Dempsey would have to be sacrificed. You can claim it was your idea.
  • In my book, untenable conflicts of interest are grounds for resignation. Think on it.